Soft power allows avenue for Russian agitation

  • 2014-04-11
  • From wire reports, RIGA

Foreign ministers from the Nordic, Baltic and Visegrad countries meet in Narva, Estonia, on March 7 to discuss the crisis in Ukraine, reports news intelligence agency Stratfor.

Despite their strong Western integration, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are vulnerable to Russian destabilization tactics via energy, trade, political and cultural links. It is highly unlikely that Russia would intervene militarily in Estonia, a NATO member, to protect ethnic Russians. More concerning than a military conflict with Russia is the prospect of trade blockades, a step that could quickly damage the Baltics economically, with little Western allies could do to help. But Moscow's most likely move is to use the ethnic Russian minority living in the Baltic States - a minority that constitutes more than a quarter of the population in Estonia and Latvia and around 6 percent in Lithuania - to attempt to destabilize the three countries.

In light of Russian actions in Ukraine allegedly designed to protect ethnic Russians there and Moscow's support of ethnic Russian groups in Latvia and Estonia, the Baltic States want to see the West reinforces its commitments to protect them from Russian aggression. The West has made several gestures to signal its commitment to its Baltic NATO allies over the past weeks, such as the visits of foreign ministers and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to the countries and through dispatching additional U.S.jets to reinforce NATO's Baltic air patrol mission. But these moves do not help the Baltic States- particularly Estonia and Latvia with their sizeable Russian minorities - deal with Russia's non-military pressure.

Non-military pressure on the Baltics

As a result of the Ukrainian crisis, Russia is likely to make greater long-term efforts to preserve cultural and linguistic links with ethnic Russians living in the Baltics and will try to undermine ongoing efforts to integrate them into their respective countries. Whether ethnic Russians would actually choose to join Russia if a Crimea-style referendum were held in the Baltic States, however, is unclear.

Ethnic Russians, especially from the younger generation, have come to enjoy the benefits of economic integration with Europe (which, among much else, opens the door for visa-free travel and employment opportunities elsewhere in the European Union for Estonian citizens). When Estonia regained its independence in 1991, 32 percent of the population was considered stateless. These stateless individuals mainly included people who had not lived on Estonian territory prior to 1940, e.g., during the Soviet era. This percentage has dropped as people took advantage of paths to Estonian citizenship, such as by gaining a certain level of Estonian language proficiency. By 2012, the Estonian population consisted of 84 percent Estonian citizens, 7 percent Russian citizens, 7 percent stateless people and 2 percent with citizenship from a country other than Estonia or Russia.

Political parties and Nongovernmental Organizations

Nonetheless, the integration of ethnic Russians has proved problematic in Estonia and the Baltics in general, especially as they try to lower the use of the Russian language in schools. Latvia's recent decision to implement a three-month ban on Russian broadcaster RTR adds to the Russian-speaking minority's grievances. In the current environment, pro-Russian political parties and Russian interest groups in the Baltics can capitalize more easily on feelings of marginalization by highlighting the actions Ukraine's interim government is taking to weaken the position of Ukraine's Russian minorities and the efforts Russia is making to protect the ethnic Russians. The Ukrainian crisis thus provides an impetus for the Russian minority to demand stronger rights and greater autonomy for regions dominated by ethnic minorities.

Prominent political parties in Estonia and Latvia advocating on behalf of ethnic Russians are likely to play an important role in potential protests. In Latvia, the Harmony Center Party, which has ethnic Russians as a core voter group, governs in the capital, Riga. Since 2011, it also has been the largest party in parliament excluded from the ruling coalition because of its pro-Russian stance. Meanwhile, in Estonia, Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar and his Center Party, which since 2004 has had a cooperation agreement with Russia's ruling United Russia party, are in a similar situation. Savisaar's core voters are pensioners (of which there are a growing number because of the country's aging society and ethnic Russians.

As in Ukraine, various nongovernmental organizations in the Baltic States are important when it comes to staging demonstrations. One, known as Russkije v Estonii (Russian for "Russians in Estonia") has planned two demonstrations in Tallinn for the coming weeks, with the first set to take place in front of the Russian Embassy on April 12 and the second in front of the parliament building April 20. These demonstrations, which Estonian authorities have said are likely to be marginal, have been registered with the city government.

Indeed, similar rallies in Tallinn on March 14 in support of Russian actions in Crimea only drew about 150 people, most of whom were pensioners. Still, the planned rallies have raised concerns. Estonia's national security agency described the individuals organizing the demonstrations - identified as Dmitri Linter and Juri Zhuravlyov - as provocateurs bent on ratcheting up tensions. These men were previously involved in riots by ethnic Russians in 2007 after a memorial commemorating Soviet soldiers killed in World War II was moved, and therefore Estonian authorities are closely scrutinizing them.

Other places and groups to watch

Narva, located on Estonia's Russian border also controlled by the Center Party, is another city to watch for protests. The head of Universityof Tartu's NarvaCollegerecently noted that around 90 percent of Narva's population speaks Russian and so is strongly influenced by Russian media coverage. This makes it easy for Russian interest groups to rally protesters there. With one-third of the country's population of 1.3 million living in Tallinn, and given that Estonia's territory is the size of the Netherlands (which has a population of 16 million), it is difficult for the Estonian state to project power through state institutions to counter Russian influence, especially in eastern Estonia.

Meanwhile, in Latvia, the Headquarters for Support of Russian Schools, which advocates the use of Russian language in schools and universities in the country, is an important group to watch. It has carried out small protests in Riga before and plans to organize a march to the Education Ministry on April 10. The use of the Russian language and the citizenship status of ethnic Russians in Latvia have been a source of controversy in the country since independence from the Soviet Union. Though a sore issue that Russia could use to its advantage, protests on such topics have so far been minimal. But if demonstrations from pro-Russian elements within the counties increase, they could provide Moscow with a significant source of leverage in the Baltic States.